Genrely Speaking: The Mockumentary

Welcome back to Genrely Speaking and wow it’s been a while since we did one of these. Partly because of the schedule I’ve been working on and party because the list of genres I feel qualified to talk about has been steadily shrinking. Today we’re going to look at a characteristic genre that is actually quite new in many respects.

A mockumentary is a work of fiction that takes the format of a factual documentary, “behind the scenes” making-of piece or reality TV show. While everything discussed in the mockumentary is fictional the “facts” of the story will presented as if they were just that – facts. (The “mock” in the title has less to do with insult and more refers to being an approximation of reality, although it can mean both.) While mockumentaries are almost entirely done on TV or in movies aspects of the genre can work their way into other media. In fact Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, while not a mockumentary in the truest sense, frequently quoted from a fictional galactic encyclopedia to give a perspective on events. A more recent example of a written mockumentary, one intended to serve as such, is Max Brooks’ World War Z.

The most famous mockumentary in modern pop culture is undoubtedly the sitcom The Office (in both the British and American incarnations) and people will tend to associate the term with comedy, particularly as it satirizes the easy target that is reality TV.

The highlights of a mockumentary include:

  • Interviews with experts and people who were on the scene. These may include characters who lived through the events the mockumentary is documenting, historians who have studied the characters in question a great deal or technical experts who explain the ins and outs of the way things work.
  • Ambiguous characters. A mockumentary is a genre that cares more about characters than about events, but the structure of the story naturally tends to give you a lot of contradictory information about them. Like in a mystery story – and real life – the things people say about themselves and the things other people say about them rarely mesh in a mockumentary. Part of that is differences between the way characters see themselves and each other, part of that is because some of the information you get in a documentary is bound to be false (deliberately or not) and so mockumentaries must be the same.
  • A lot of world building. There’s a lot of chances to slip in tidbits about a fictional world in a mockumentary. Was there an extinct race of elves on one continent of your world? Maybe a major character had an interest in collecting artifact from their civilization, a fact brought up during an interview with a close friend. The audience not only learns about your character’s interest in archaeology they learn the world once had elves. You can be more direct as well. In a mockumentary about deep space colonization you can have an expert on shipbuilding explain why a specific faster than light drive was chosen for an expedition and explain the “science” behind the drive at the same time. The possibilities are endless.

What are the weaknesses of a mockumentary? With ambiguous characters around every corner it can be harder to get attached to them simply because the narrators aren’t trustworthy. In most fiction the reader assumes they’re getting straight facts even if the work is written in the first person. But a mockumentary frequently introduces contradictory narratives to keep us on our toes. Even when the audience gets to see events “as they really happened” they still have to decide whether they trust the personal testimonies given after the facts. Constantly looking out for spin from fictional characters can be exhausting and too much like real life for some people

On top of that, it’s easy for mockumentaries to get caught up in the minutia and lose sight of the story. Too much time spent exploring all the viewpoints in a story, too much emphasis put on worldbuilding details instead of plot progression, and the story can fall apart. Even if the writer does a brilliant job audiences can still get fatigued with all the work needed to track it all.

In short, it’s very easy to overwork your audience with a mockumentary.

What are the strengths of a mockumentary? While characters will undoubtedly come off as ambiguous due to the way they are presented they can still be studied in much more depth in this genre than in most. A mockumentary is as much about the testimony about an event or series of events as the events themselves. What people say about something a simple as a car accident on the street can reveal a lot about who they are and what kinds of priorities they have. Done right, a mockumentary can provide powerful character studies.

I don’t think the mockumentary is ever going to “take off” and become a powerful force in the literary or entertainment worlds. They require a lot of work on the parts of both the creators and the audience, and the kinds of stories you can tell within the strictures of the genre are pretty limited. But that doesn’t mean the genre is bad – in fact, there are few other genres suited to the kinds of stories it wants to tell. The fact that without it we would have missed out on those stories is probably enough to make it a good genre.

The only real question is if it will ever be great. I can’t answer that but I have no problem with watching to see if it can.

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